Monday, February 4, 2013

White Dragonology

For a game based on "Dungeons & Dragons", I don't get the chance to throw too many dragons at my players.  Since the players fought and defeated a white dragon statted like one from the Moldvay Basic book last week, I was able to make some observations.

Encounters with dragons are dangerous and random.  The dragon will open the fight with a breath weapon, and there's a 50% chance it will breath each round thereafter (max of 3 times per day).  A healthy 40hp dragon, breathing 3 times in a row, would wipe out almost any mid-level party (120 damage!)  Alternatively, if the DM doesn't roll the 50% chance, the dragon might not get the chance to breath again all fight.  As I said - the randomness of the breath weapon make it dangerous, and random.

Another factor is that the dragon's breath damage is tied to its current hit points.  If a party hits it hard, with a lot of early damage, they can greatly reduce the threat of the breath weapon.  In our game, the players ditched in a side passage, letting an automaton they were controlling engage the dragon, until they could launch an effective bum rush, knocking the dragon out of its high hit points with some solid swings (which allowed them to survive the remaining two breath attacks when they finally came).

As the DM, I wasn't happy with the 50% chance of breathing; my dice were cold and it didn't breath until late in the fight, when its hit point total was greatly reduced.  But I do understand the need to reign in the overwhelming breath attack with the variability so a party isn't overwhelmed in 3 rounds of breath attacks.

The BX white dragon attacks with two claws and a bite (damage 1-4/1-4/2-16) and has only 6 HD.  That makes it a glass cannon - the opening breath is really threatening, the physical attacks aren't fantastic, and the remaining breaths are the mercy of the dice.

Since I wasn't terribly impressed with the BX version, I checked out how the white dragon fared in some of the other rules that frequent my table.

The white dragon in the 1E AD&D monster manual is exactly the same statistically as the BX version, with one important difference:  dragon fear.  In AD&D, dragons generate terror which forces lower level characters to flee or take attack penalties.  The Black City group wouldn't have struggled against the AD&D version - they had too many 1st or 2nd level retainers or replacement characters that would have fled.

BECMI / Rules Cyclopedia
The Mentzer set, and the Rules Cyclopedia, had a major problem because they stretched play over 36 levels - how do you scale dragons to threaten characters over such a long career?  The BX dragons were re-branded as "small dragons", and large and huge variants were added (9 and 12 HD respectively, for the white dragon, with rules to bump the HD even further).  The requirement of rolling a 50% chance for breathing was removed for the large and huge dragons, tacitly allowing the DM to use the breath to do the most harm each round.  The larger dragons are also given some additional combat options (swooping dives, crushes, kicks, tail sweeps, and so forth).

Adventurer Conqueror King (ACKS)
The dragon hierarchy is flattened in ACKS, so that any adult dragon will have 10 HD regardless of color.  The breath weapon is 1d6 per hit die,  decoupling it from the dragon's hit points but keeping a variable factor - which means that even an injured dragon can uncork a ferocious breath attack of 10d6 damage.  ACKS does keep the 50% chance of breathing each round that you see in BX or AD&D (max of 3 per day).  One of the real interesting things is giving each dragon a special offensive or defensive ability, like invulnerability, gem-encrusted hide, decapitating bite, and so forth, making each dragon encounter memorable and more dangerous.

I'm really happy with the uptick in danger represented by the ACKS dragons - any adult dragon is a house, the late-fight breath weapon is still devastating, the ancient dragons are as dangerous as the BECMI huge dragons, and the new special abilities are flavorful and interesting.


  1. You might want to check out the AD&D 2e dragons - they seriously upgunned those guys from the 1e versions, IIRC. I don't remember them well enough to say how they fare against ACKS dragons, though.

    1. They are horrific in 2e. Their breath weapon can be used once every three rounds without checking and to no upper limit - it simply recharges after that long. Their preferred tactics listed in the MM are breath weapon, magic, and only then claw/claw/wing attacks. Given free range to fly that means: strafe with breath weapon, fly away for three turns, come back and do it again.

      If they're confined at all that's a breath weapon followed by spells and devastating physical attacks. 2e breath weapons don't degrade as the dragon is injured. A white dragon of age category 4, for example, deals 4d6+4 damage every three turns if it can use its cone of cold. Dragon fear remains in play, causing low level folks to flee or be greatly reduced in utility.

  2. Nice post! HackMaster (to add another D&D variant) gives dragons really some love: 25 different dragons for flavour and 12 age categories (from egg to great wyrm). Young adults (51-100 years) got Dragon Speak (with a soothing effect), a fear effect on enemies and a +5 to damage for all attacks but the dragons breath. They have several fighting maneuvers, like hovering (only for 1 round, but attacks with 4 claws and bite) or stomp (jumping 30' high and using rear claws and tail to pinn (save vs. petrification avoids crushing damage thereafter) enemies for bite damage). Breath attack is 1 every three rounds.

    So a young adult (age category 5) white dragon would have 141 hp, fear effect (mostly to weaken attacks), attacks with 1d6+5/1d6+5/2d8+5 and a breath attack does 5d6+5 damage (save for half).

    They are not very intelligent and pretty careless as enemies, but very, very dangerous.

    (Bonus material: HackMaster gives an extensive list how to reuse organs of a slain dragon, it's really worth it to hunt dragons. I just love that kind of flavour.)

  3. Oh, this is about "4th" Edition HackMaster (don't know the new one) and not meant as advertisement. I just like what they did with monsters :)

  4. About the random roll on dragons - are there any other monsters that have to roll to see what attack they choose to use? Dragons seem so shafted - they're supposed to be intelligent, but they're often caught sleeping and their attack choice is literally random.

  5. I actually like the 4E recharge system for things like breath weapons. It's easy, doesn't require tracking another number, and adds to the uncertainty of the encounter.

  6. I don't know the circumstances of the ice cave's layout (size, height and features), but if a White Dragon is living in an ice cave, it should use it to it's full tactical advantage. It's lair should be laid out so that it can take flight if need be. Maybe ice ledges it could jump up to and out of range of melee attacks from the party. Dragons are intelligent and they didn't get to that age by not taking precautions to protect their lair. Also, how about slippery sheets of ice so that those charging have a decent chance of slipping unless they had appropriate gear (razor-cleats on their boots). How I imagine the combat in the play report is that the dragon just stood there going toe-to-toe with the party. It would know best that it's breath weapon isn't reliable and should keep away from attackers until it can. That is what makes a dragon dangerous, tactics and using their home ground to their advantage.

  7. If dragons were non-sentient non-tactically-minded creatures, randomizing their breath weapon would make sense. But they aren't.

    Would you tell a dwarven fighter that he can only use his +1 Battle Axe of Major Ass-Kicking if he first rolls a 50% or lower each round? He'd be pretty irritated. Any tactically-minded individual should be free to use their weapons to the best of their ability and to strategize regarding when they will work best.

    Most dragons are smarter than most adventurers. It's hard to portray this because adventurers are (regardless of their intelligence ability scores) usually as smart as the players running them, and it's pretty hard to be smarter than all your players. The best way to portray the genius of the dragon is to take time before the party knows it exists to really lay out some good tactics and make sure that the dragon uses them to its best ability.

    A giant automaton comes crashing in. Okay. The dragon will be smart enough to know it's under the control of somebody who is obviously weaker than the automaton (elsewise they wouldn't be using it). The best bet is to not waste any limited-per-day attacks on the tool and to instead try to hunt down the controller and take them out first. They are probably down that hall the automaton came out of, so head that way and breath on whatever moves. Most likely, that will take out the automaton at the same time even if you never touched it.

    Secondly, no dragon would be foolish enough to have an inescapable lair. It would know that it needs at least two good exits. Preferably, these would be exits set up in such a way that traps can be quickly activated on the way out to damage anybody trying to make chase. An ice cave is a particularly easy place to trap: The dragon flies out a big tunnel with a narrow traversible floor. That floor has several areas with very thin ice, only strong enough to support a chasing party long enough to get them over the very deep crevasse beneath.

    A dragon should never willingly fight to its death. They aren't that dumb. As soon as even a single solid blow is landed, if the threat seems real, it should immediately retreat. Hopefully, it will be chased and the foolish attackers will fall victim to the many traps laid in advance for them, but even if they don't, the dragon can now take the initiative and bring the fight to the intruders on it's own terms. (Or it can go torch the nearest village, killing every living there except for a few lone survivors who will be allowed to go spread the tale of the death delivered upon their village by the foolish party of adventurers who cared so little for anybody but themselves that they would go disturb a dragon, heedless of consequence.)

    I love your write-ups, and I think you seem to be a truly awesome DM. But I have to say that I think you killed your own dragon there by just not playing it up to it's true abilities.

  8. "few lone survivors"... Ugh. You know what I meant. :)

  9. I appreciate the criticism - right after the combat, I too was like, "Geez, clearly I need to go back to DM school and refresh on dragons." You know how I knew that? Because they lived.

    It's insightful that everyone agrees the dragon's programmed responses in the rules (always breath first, and randomly breath throughout the fight) contradict playing the dragon as an intelligent opponent.

    I originally planned an escape route (the ceiling had a hole leading to the surface, covered by a layer of ice) but once the melee got rolling, the dragon focused on destroying the robot, and then I (I mean me, the DM) was startled by the player's banzai attack, and then it was all over but the crying. (Or the counting of the loot, if you're a player).

    Live and learn. :sigh:

    @Josh: I need to check out the 2E Monstrous Manual, I'm interested to see where they went in 2E; it's not usually my first choice.

    1. Maybe neither here nor there, but in 2E white dragons have a rather low intelligence (5 - 7).

      "White dragons, the smallest and weakest of the evil dragons, are slow witted but efficient hunters. They are impulsive, vicious, and animalistic, tending to consider only the needs and emotions of the moment and having no foresight or regret. Despite their low intelligence, they are as greedy and evil as the other evil dragons."

    2. I've experienced similar things with various beasties that I "knew" should have been too difficult only to realize later that I wasn't running them very intelligently. It's one of the great burdens of the DM to be familiar with the intimate details of every monster and run them in a way that, if it isn't terribly smart (say, an ogre), at least makes good use of all their abilities and minimizes their weaknesses. Even the dumbest creature is familiar with its own flaws.

      Here's the 2e MM entry on dragons in general and here the White Dragon.

    3. I'm cool with White Dragons being animalistic and dim, but then where to they get their huge stack of loot?